Vitro, p.1
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       Vitro, p.1

           Jessica Khoury
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  Praise for Jessica Khoury’s Origin

  “Khoury’s debut captures the lush rhythms of the rainforest. . . . The plot moves at breakneck speed. . . . Utterly refreshing.”


  “This well-written first novel concerns 17-year-old Pia, who, as the result of advanced genetic engineering, is invulnerable and immortal. . . . [Khoury’s] descriptions of the rainforest and the native people contrast beautifully with the laboratory setting . . . and Pia is a fascinating protagonist.”

  —Publishers Weekly

  “This first novel is a gripping read . . . with a clever blend of elements. It is an adventure story with romantic overtones, has a lush exotic setting framed by science, turns the eternal-love concept on its head, and rotates around a compelling moral quandary.”


  “Readers will be thrilled with the page-turning adventure/survival scenes in a descriptive and imaginative setting, and will root for Pia and Eio to the end.”


  “Origin is a startling mystery played out in the vivid and lush Amazon jungle. In this deadly clash of science and nature, a heroine emerges. Pia clawed her way through the pages and left her mark on the landscape of my imagination as the almost tangible danger left me breathless.”

  —Colleen Houck, New York Times bestselling author of Tiger’s Curse

  “I loved Origin’s action, romance, and mystery—and I couldn’t stop thinking about the questions it raised.”

  —Beth Revis, New York Times bestselling author of Across the Universe

  “Is this science fiction? It feels too scarily real. This spellbinding tale of the horrors of genetic engineering gone mad is both thriller and love story, breathlessly paced and beautifully told.”

  —Judy Blundell, National Book Award–winning author ofWhat I Saw and How I Lied

  “A lush, dreamy page-turner that will live forever in the hearts of its readers. Pia may be the perfect antidote for those suffering from Katniss withdrawal.”

  —Josh Sundquist, author of the national bestseller Just Don’t Fall



  An Imprint of Penguin Group (USA) LLC

  A division of Penguin Young Readers Group

  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) LLC

  345 Hudson Street

  New York, New York 10014

  USA / Canada / UK / Ireland / Australia / New Zealand / India / South Africa / China

  A Penguin Random House Company

  Copyright © 2014 Jessica Khoury

  Penguin supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin to continue to publish books for every reader.

  ISBN: 978-1-101-60453-3

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.



















































  09 July 23:46




  I need you. Please come at once. I’ll look for you on Friday. Do not reply to this e-mail.





  “Skin Island,” Sophie said for what felt like the hundredth time. “I know what I’m talking about. It’s called Skin Island, and it has to be nearby. Please, can’t you just check again?”

  She’d spent the last twenty hours in airports and cramped planes, nearly missing her second connecting flight after getting lost in the Tokyo airport and almost arrested for having a pair of scissors in her backpack, and she felt she would collapse if she took another step. She planted her hands on the travel agent’s counter and refused to move until she had an answer. Behind her, the lobby of A.B. Won Pat International Airport basked in the afternoon sunlight that streamed through tall glass windows. Sunburned tourists and TSA agents navigated through the network of cordoned-off aisles and piles of suitcases, oblivious to the turmoil churning in Sophie’s stomach. Her flight to Guam had landed an hour earlier, but she still felt as if she were caught in a wave of turbulence.

  The travel agent’s eyelid twitched. Sophie could tell that the man was nearing the edge of his patience. “I’ve checked every list, every database I know of, young lady. There simply is no Skin Island. It doesn’t exist.”

  He spoke with a tone of irritated finality, and leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest. Sophie guessed the man was in his fifties from his balding scalp and drooping jawline. He had sweat stains under his arms and smelled of garlic.

  “I can pay you, I swear. I know it exists! My mom’s worked there for years.”

  “You could hand over the key to the national treasury, wouldn’t make a bit of difference. It’s not there, I’m telling you! I’m sorry, miss, but I can’t produce an island out of thin air.”

  She drew a deep breath to steady herself, feeling like a torn flag whipped and battered by a hurricane. “If you can’t help me, then who can? There must be someone local who knows the surrounding area.”

  “I’m telling you, there’s no—”

  “Look . . .” She glanced at his name tag. “Randy. I did not come halfway around the world just for kicks. Give me something to go on—a name, a map, a fricking rental boat so I can go find the place myself.” She glanced over the counter, at the desk he was sitting at, and spied a laminated map folded up and tucked between a mug of pens and a stapler. Before he could react, she lunged across the counter and snatched it, dancing backward when he tried to grab it.

  The Mariana Islands marched in a gentle crescent from southern Guam to some speck of an island called Farallon de Pajaros on the northern edge of the paper, but none of them was called Skin Island. There were, however, several
small, unlabeled islands—perhaps one of these was the one she sought.

  The map disappeared as the travel agent plucked it away, and she found herself staring at her own empty hands. He had risen from his chair in the effort, and now sat down again, making the chair squeak beneath him. Heaving a sigh, he methodically refolded the map and tucked it back into place.

  “You might check with the local charter pilots,” he said. “Might be your island is too small to be listed with me, or goes by another name. Get a taxi, go to the Station—it’s the bar where they all hang out. If they don’t know your island, then it really doesn’t exist.”

  “Thank you,” she said. They exchanged scowls of mutual annoyance before she turned and walked away.

  Outside the airport, she stood on the curb and waited for a taxi. It was the first moment she’d had since landing to stop and breathe and take it all in. Guam was a mixture of strange and familiar; strange, because for the last nine years she had lived in Boston, and the warm, damp air and tropical views seemed hardly real. Familiar, because the first seven years of her life had been spent on this island. It was home to her, but a home that was a distant, sepia-toned memory, a life that was folded between the pages of a dusty scrapbook. Now that she was back, she felt oddly shy, as if she were calling up a friend she’d not seen in years. Would anyone here remember her? How much had this place changed? It doesn’t matter, she thought. I’m not here to stay. She was just passing through. Her mother didn’t live on Guam anymore; she’d moved to Skin Island when Sophie was seven, and a month later, Sophie and her dad moved to Boston.

  A taxi finally pulled up. She tossed her backpack inside, slid into the crackled leather seat, and told the driver her destination.

  When she got there, Sophie thought she’d been played for a fool. She’d asked to go to the Station, and the taxi driver had dropped her at a rusty, tin building that just looked . . . well, cranky. Like it wasn’t any happier to see her than she was to see it. She didn’t remember this section of the island, but then, she’d remembered much less of what she’d seen on the ride here than she might have guessed.

  She was doubtful, but then she saw THE STATION painted on the tin in faded, chipped green letters. The small window in the metal door, though dirty and streaked, revealed a dimly lit room within. She stood on the toes of her worn pink Chucks and pressed her nose against the glass. There was a bar, after all. She could see it against the far end of the room, complete with a tired-looking bartender and a small television playing an old ’90s sitcom.

  Sophie hitched her backpack higher on her shoulders, then turned the metal handle on the door. It was heavier than she’d expected, and she had to push it open with her shoulder. Once she was through, it slammed shut with a bang, as if offended by her intrusion. Only one table in the room was occupied, by a group of men playing poker. They all stared up at her. Feeling intensely self-conscious, she wondered if one of them might be a pilot she could beg for help.

  To be certain, though, she first went to the bar and stood at the counter. “Excuse me,” she said. “I’m looking for—”

  The bartender had his back to her, and he threw up a hand for her to wait. She bit her lip and glanced at the men in the corner. They’d gone back to their game, but were watching her between plays. She looked away. On the other side of the room, an A-frame ladder was set up between two tables. Someone stood on top of it, his jeans dirty with grease and rumpled over a pair of work boots. The man’s upper half was concealed by the ceiling; he’d removed one panel and seemed to be working on something electrical she couldn’t see.

  Sophie turned back to the bartender, who was intent on polishing a set of shot glasses and seemed happy to ignore her. She drifted further down the bar, to where a small metal fan oscillated on the corner. The building was not air-conditioned, and it was hotter inside than it was outside—and it even felt more humid. She wouldn’t have thought it possible, from the way her clothes had instantly adhered to her skin when she walked out of the airport.

  Now she was standing just beside the ladder, and peered curiously up. Whoever it was on top of it, his reaching into the ceiling was making his shirt lift, revealing a stack of abs and a hint of plaid boxers.

  “You gonna wipe that drool off my counter when you’re done gawking, young lady?”

  Sophie jumped. The bartender leaned over the counter and grinned at her with gleaming, perfectly aligned teeth. They didn’t look real, not in his stubbled, pudgy face.

  “The guy at the airport said a local pilot might be able to help me find the island I’m looking for. Are there any pilots here? He said this was where to find them.”

  He nodded to the table in the corner. “There’s Jordy and Pete. Ty’ll be along later, but Nandu’s out flying some tourists.”

  There was a sudden clatter overhead, and Sophie instinctively ducked, but it was just the guy messing around in the ceiling. The fan turned her way and blasted her hair across her face. “Thanks.”

  She made for the table in the corner. Two of the men had gray hair and deep tans, and the third was entirely bald. Sophie stood beside the table and waited. The poker players glanced at her casually, but didn’t give her their attention until she cleared her throat and tapped the table. Then they turned away from their game and stared at her silently, each of them looking offended that she’d interrupted the round.

  “Sorry to bother you,” Sophie said, doing her best to keep a rein on her frayed and weary temper. “I was told one of you might know the location of Skin Island, and could fly me there?”

  They exchanged looks. The bald man laid his cards facedown on the table and twisted his neck, making his spine crack. “Skin Island,” he said slowly, drawing the words out in a low tone that Sophie barely caught. The other two stared at Sophie again, but this time, there was a guarded look in their eyes. The one who’d spoken was American by his accent, and the other two looked Polynesian.

  “Maybe I’ve heard of it,” the bald man went on. “Maybe I haven’t. But I’d sure as hell not fly you there.”

  “Wouldn’t fly the president himself to Skin Island,” growled one of the others. He tossed a five-dollar bill into the pot. “Raise you five, Pete.”

  “I see you,” the third man said. “And I raise you five back. Look, little lady, what my friends here are trying to tell you is that nobody flies to Skin Island. Nobody. I don’t know what you want with that place, but you’d best just turn around and go home.” He glanced around the room, as if afraid someone had heard him speak.

  She started over. “Listen. My mom works on Skin Island. I don’t know what you’ve heard or what your deal is, but I have to get there. Please. It’s an emergency.”

  They were unmoved. If anything, they looked even stonier.

  “Nandu flew out there a few months back,” said Pete. “Didn’t he tell you about it, Jordy?”

  The bald man grunted. “He’d run into engine trouble and had to put down. Skin Island had the nearest airstrip. Said he was met by an armed welcoming committee—they welcomed him to leave. He got a good look around, though. That old resort—Halcyon Bay or something like that—they’d taken over a few of the buildings, had a bunch of doctors running around, real secretive. They marched him back to his plane and sent him packing. Would have shot him, he said, if he didn’t go. He took his chances with the faulty engine.” He shook his head. “He barely made it back in that old junker he calls a plane.”

  The story seemed stretched to Sophie, a tall tale told by a pilot to impress his friends, perhaps. Then again, her father had always told her she’d never be allowed to visit Skin Island, no matter how many times she begged her mother to let her come. The security around the place was Code Paranoid, which Sophie found a bit melodramatic considering the focus of her mom’s research was finding cures for psychological conditions like Alzheimer’s. “What are you scared of?” she’d asked her mother once on t
he phone. Moira Crue had replied, “Our work has the potential to make billions of dollars, Sophie. People have committed genocide for less. Now stop asking questions.”

  “See, girl? You’re better off getting a flight to the moon,” said Pete.

  “Forget about Skin Island,” said Jordy, and he folded, leaving the third man to collect the pot.

  “Is there no one who will take me there?” Her voice pitched upward. I will not panic. I will not panic. But as many times as she told it to herself, it didn’t quench the riot of nerves sizzling like cut wires inside her. She clenched the paper in her pocket as if it were a rabbit’s foot to bring her luck. She had to get to that island. It wasn’t just the e-mail. It wasn’t just her mom. I can’t go back now. I’d look like an idiot. Dad will murder me for this as it is!

  “Well . . .” Pete yawned and drummed grease-stained fingers on his Heineken bottle. “There might be just one guy stupid enough to—”

  “Pete.” Bald man’s voice was low, cutting the pilot off midsentence.

  “Can’t hurt to ask,” Pete replied genially. He peered up at Sophie from beneath wispy white eyebrows. “If there’s anyone who might fly you to Skin Island, it’s Jim Julien.”

  “Jim Julien,” Jordy grunted disdainfully as he shuffled the deck.

  “Jim Julien,” replied the third man with a thoughtful look. “You know, I think Pete may be right. Jim might take you.”

  “Jim Julien,” Sophie whispered. A little bell began to ring in the back of her mind. I know that name. . . .

  “Jim!” the bartender yelled suddenly. “Get down here. Someone for you.”

  “Not the IRS, is it?” asked a voice.

  Sophie spun to see the work boots making their way down the ladder. Her eyes trailed up, over the jeans and sleeveless gray undershirt, to a tan, square jaw and a pair of deep, golden-brown eyes. He was no older than she was, from the look of him, and he was not what she’d expected at all. After talking to the poker pilots, she’d imagined every aviator on Guam was ancient, grizzled, and half-sunk into a bottle of beer. This one was anything but. And the moment she met his gaze, it all fell into place: golden afternoons spent splashing in the shallow blue bays around the island, star-speckled night hikes through the jungled mountains, hours of playing hide-and-seek at the Chamorro fiestas that were held on an almost weekly basis around the island.


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